Rosh Hashana First Day
By Ilana Grinblatt, September 21, 2017
Every year, in preparing for the high holidays, I ask myself the same, simple question: Who or what most inspired me this past year? Was it something that I read? Was it a person who said or did something memorable? Was it a particular moment that occurred? What did I learn that I want to carry into this new year?
This year was a tough one. While I am grateful for the blessings of this past year, if I had to summarize the past year is one word, the word would be: Oy! When I look back on when I spoke to you last Yom Kippur, I was feeling hopeful – guardedly so – but hopeful. Some developments that I was wishin for last Yom Kippur didn’t come to be.
Instead, we witnessed a year of great divisiveness in our country – where our civil discourse was anything but civil. We faced many disasters – from the bomb threats on the Jewish Community Centers to the horrific hatred displayed in Charlottesville, to the recent Hurricanes. We were constantly reminded of our vulnerability to tragedies – natural, man-made, and a combination thereof. Yet even in year like this past year, there is inspiration to be found.
So what did I learn from this past year? Who inspired me?
This morning, I’d like to share with you the word, the sentence, and the moment that most inspired me most this past year that I want to carry with me into the coming year.
The word that I want to carry into the year to come is Hayom (Today). This word is found in the Hayom T’amtzenu prayer said on the Rosh Hashanah. This word is repeated many times in this prayer. In a common melody, the word Hayom is repeated 13 times per line, for some 9 lines – hammering home that word, again and again.
When I think about songs in English about days, the first that comes to mind is Yesterday by the Beatles.
Sometimes, we get stuck in yesterday. Something happened years ago, and we’re still there. They say that “time heals all wounds,” – which is a lovely idea, except that it isn’t true. Since I’ve had two surgeries on my toe in the past month, I can tell you that time is a necessary but insufficient ingredient for healing. Wounds require active participation to heal – including cleaning, wrapping, and antibiotic ointment. Likewise, our spiritual wounds require care to heal. Sometimes we get stuck in the past because we haven’t done the spiritual work to tend to old wounds.
One of the tricks that mind plays on us is articulated precisely by the lyrics of the Beatles’ song. “Yesterday love was such an easy game to play, now I need a place to hide away.” One of the tricks the mind plays on us is to romanticize that yesterday was easier than now which is so much more difficult. Perhaps yesterday was actually easier or perhaps not, but nonetheless, we can’t go back there and redo our decisions, so the Hayom prayer pulls us out of yesterday to focus instead on the choices that are available to us today.
When I think about songs about days, the second song that immediately comes to mind is the opposite song – “Tomorrow” from Annie. “Tomorrow, Tomorrow, I love you tomorrow, you’re only a day away!”
It’s such a hopeful song. I do in fact love tomorrow. The hope that tomorrow will be better than yesterday is what gets me through the hardest parts of my life. Overall, this song has been true for me. One of the perks of a tough childhood is that adulthood is an improvement. No matter what I’m going through, I hope that tomorrow will be an improvement.
Therefore, I was surprised by a sentence that I read in Rabbi Naomi Levy’s new book, Einstein and the Rabbi – “Be aware that the Yetzer’s most powerful weapon of all is one word, tomorrow.” Rabbi Levy explained how the yetzer hara (our evil inclination) tricks us with the promise of tomorrow.
If we’re scared to do something, the yetzer reassures us by saying: you’ll do it tomorrow. This idea sounds great because tomorrow is so soon. Except, that tomorrow, the yetzer tricks us again this way, and tomorrow always stays a day away.
Unfortunately, the sad truth is that if we are afraid of something, our fears are not likely to get smaller tomorrow. In fact, our fears tend to grow. If there’s a painful conversation that we need to have, that conversation is not likely to be easier tomorrow than today. Actually, it’s likely to be harder because the distance between estranged friends or family grows a bit each day. The Hayom prayer calls on us to have that conversation today.
If there’s a project we’ve wanted in our heart of hearts to do but been terrified to begin, the task not likely to get less intimidating in the future. Rather, the longer we listen to yetzer’s whisper tomorrow, the prospect of starting steadily becomes more overwhelming. The Hayom prayer says: Start today.
This same phenomenon occurs in both our personal and global problems. Rabbi Arthur Waskow recently wrote a moving reflection entitled, “The World itself is Blowing the Great Shofar. Awake!” He referred to four events of the past months as four shofar blows:
- Charlottesville as a wake-up call to Neo-Nazism,
- the Hurricanes as a wake-up call for Climate Change
- the hydrogen bomb and long-distance missiles tested by the government of North Korea as a warning about the dangers of nuclear proliferation, and
- the “efforts to wreck the lives of Dreamers and other immigrants, documented or not.”
However you would define the Shofar blasts, and our greatest global and personal challenges, the sad truth is that these problems don’t tend to go away on their own. In fact, if we stall, these problems tend to grow.
On both a personal and global level, the irony is that the hope that tomorrow will be better automatically can keep us from the making the scary, painful actions today which would actually make tomorrow better.
The Hayom prayer calls us to begin today.
Now, let’s look at another prayer which begins with the word Hayom. While the word that I want to carry into the new year is Hayom, the sentence that I want to carry into the new year is Hayom Harat Olam (which is sung after blowing the shofar). What does that sentence mean?
Hayom Harat Olam is commonly translated as Today the world is born.
However, Rabbi Naomi Levy learned from Dr. Tamar Frankel the true meaning of this sentence. The words “Harat Olam” are quoted from Jeremiah. In a moment of despair, Jeremiah wished that he had never been born, that his mother had stayed pregnant forever.
Therefore, Hayom Harat Olam actually means: Today is pregnant forever.
To me, being pregnant forever sounds like a nightmare – since I felt sick throughout my pregnancies. Being pregnant forever means never meeting the baby, never seeing the fruit of your labor, being stuck in suspended animation, about to jump out of the airplane but never taking the leap. Today is pregnant forever means today is filled with potential until you undertake the excruciating process of bringing something new into the world.
What are you pregnant forever with? What are you waiting to bring into this world but haven’t yet? Is it a professional or personal project that you’ve been scared to start? Is it a social justice issue that has been bothering you? Is it a conversation you need to have?
This Hayom prayer calls us to do so today.
Now that I’ve shared with you the inspirational word and sentence, I’d like to share with you the inspiration moment from the year. Part of my job at the Board of Rabbis is to plan the High Holy Days conference. At this year’s conference Rabbi Naomi Levy led a meditation. I’d like to do with you a shortened version of what she did, and share with you what happened to me at that moment.
Close your eyes.
Take a deep breath, and exhale.
Imagine that you are walking into your favorite sanctuary.
Enter the sanctuary… walk towards the ark… open the ark… take out the Torah… and listen…
Now close the Torah…close the ark… Slowly step back from the ark… and walk back to the door of the sanctuary… Kiss the mezuzah on the door of the sanctuary, step out of the sanctuary… and open your eyes.
When I experienced this meditation at the High Holy Days conference, I heard two words, “yehiyeh tov,” it will be good. At first, I felt a bit frustrated and wondered, what should I do so that it will be good. Yet, ultimately that is our greatest hope, that there will be goodness in our lives.
Thus, my hope for us for the coming year is: May we not be stuck in yesterday, may we not be stuck in tomorrow, and may we not be stuck in between. May we not be pregnant forever. May we make the tough choices today that will make our tomorrows better v’yehiyeh Tov – and may your year be filled with goodness.